Homecoming

In the three months since Beyoncé’s *Homecoming* concert-documentary/live album hit the internet streams, I’ve been listening repeatedly with levels of enthusiasm and engagement that I haven’t felt with music in quite a long time. At my desk at the office, at the start of many of my long distance runs, or when I feel like listening to something but don’t have anything particular in mind, it’s effectively become the soundtrack to my life this summer.

I’ve never really seen myself as a Beyoncé “fan”. In my formative years when she was part of Destiny’s Child, she was just another singer in an all-female performance group. Being in a passive household genre-based audio war with my older sister, fighting against her CD catalog of rap, hip hop, R&B, and oldies with my new love spiral for hard rock and metal, Beyoncé was just another singer for a type of music I didn’t care about. As age and experience broadened my taste for music to allow me to enjoy genres I used to arrogantly dismiss as “not real music” or write off otherwise, I got familiar enough with a enough of her songs as a solo artist to find myself impressed by her infamous self-titled album, from the elevated composition/production and lyrical content to the marketing strategy and material involved. It was a methodically planned album went far beyond music tracks burned onto a $20 plastic disc with a small set of liner notes, something I’d previously only seen in the Japanese music industry—for example, releasing music videos for every track on the album a la Dir en grey’s 1997 *Gauze* album— and elevated it to another level. But it wasn’t until 2016 when she began actively and unapologetically lean into her Blackness that I started finding myself truly drawn to her as an artist. The personal-but-publicly-known narrative (as well as the finesse and privacy it was handled under) behind *Lemonade*, abstracted and poeticized to be made relatable to and representative of the experiences of the Black woman, was art in the truest sense of the word. Even the revisited “visual album” component was of another level, laden with intentional imagery and showing an arcing narrative over twelve songs. I was awestruck then, but this year’s release of *Homecoming* marked the moment where I considered myself officially “stung”.

At this point in time so far out from it’s initial release, there have been many reviews and analytical thought pieces on the deeper cultural significance of *Homecoming*; I’m not a member of the target demographic nor an scholar of a relevant academic discipline to be attempting to craft one of my own. That said, I’d be remiss to not sing its due praise. Here, in 2019 Trump America, is Beyoncé’s entire career, curated and distilled into a (literally) flawless 105 minute-long performance showcasing Black and sending “the bar” to the moon. Her breath control is insane, never missing a note while simultaneously dancing out complicated choreography for well over an hour. Not only that, but she sounds the best she ever has—listening to the original recordings of the songs included leaves them sounding tinny and flat by comparison, lacking the bombastic arrangement of the band orchestra and the full-bodied and more relatable vocal tone of a full-grown adult woman. The documentary bits spliced into the performance are a testament to the both the benefits and importance of humility, sacrifice, and hard work, leaving us with hard proof that the most well known and highly regarded example of a humanity at its best being a Black woman. It’s like a modern-day entertainment equivalent of Jesse Owens in nazi Germany sweeping up medals and setting multiple Olympic records in under the course of a single hour.

As Beyoncé narrates herself, she didn’t put on her “flower crown” for Coachella, she put on her culture, and presented it to the world with all of the power and refinement her personal brand is known for, giving everyone a chance to see themselves reflected in her accomplishment to at least some degree. Growing up bi-racial in a time before widespread internet adoption, I can relate to the feeling of being insufficient at *two* races and not being fully accepted as either one. The inclusion of her collaboration track *Mi Gente* with J. Balvin (which I’m assuming it got edited down to just her verse in the video due to licensing conflicts) makes a part of me feel reflected on that stage, and more relevantly, millions of Afro-Latino people out there a representation of their dual ethnic identities harmonizing together. We tend to evaluate things on what they mean to us as individuals, but one audience that isn’t capable of verbalizing and pouring thoughts online are the millions of children also being exposed to this release. Being born a half-Latino American citizen raised in Southern California, I’ve always been keenly aware of the xenophobic American attitude toward the Mexican people and the looming threat of deportation for family and friends who weren’t as fortunate as I was to be born on US soil. Having Selena sellout the the Houston Astrodome in the mid 1990’s was a revelation to my child self; my culture *could* find success in America with non-Spanish speakers and fill stadium arenas, and make a lasting impact on society at large. By extension, it fills me with a quiet happiness to know that in a time of *Black Lives Matter*, when Eric Garner can be murdered on camera without consequence, children today out there have a shining example of both objective & Black excellence as I had my Latino one decades earlier at their age.

After losing some of 2019’s entries due to a migration error, I moved my focus away from the blog and put it on the other projects I’ve been working on. But the importance of commitment and a hard work ethic aren’t my only takeaways from the *Homecoming* experience. It was titled as such not just as a reference to the HBCU theme of the show, but also as a return to her art after being away from it for so long with her recent pregnancy. I too should come back to my form of expression, and start executing it consistently.

The Sting of BTrayal

So, the post title is a little on the melodramatic side, but some word plays can’t be resisted…
This past weekend, I was reading through the Twitter stream and realized that it’d been a good while since I’d seen a tweet from BT’s account. I found myself wondering if he’d given up on Twitter, since BT also happens to be the name of telecom provider in the UK, and due to the shared name, he frequently receives complaint tweets from UK Twitter users. I tapped over to his profile in my Twitter client and saw that my account was shown as not following his. I was a little perplexed, since I didn’t recall ever unfollowing him, and pushed on the button to resubscribe to his feed. That’s when I learned that I’d been blocked.
btblock
I was a little incredulous, and in a spout of denial, considered it may have just been errant behavior by my phone’s Twitter client. I fired up a web browser and navigated to his page, only to have my finding confirmed:
BT Blocked Twitter Account
 
At this point, I found myself dealing with two distinct reactions. The first was anxious wonder, trying to think of what could have possibly led to this. Maybe I’d been blowing up his notifications with constant tweets? A quick Twitter search ruled that one out. Perhaps something I’d said? Re-reading the content of the tweets in that search result, I saw nothing but my usual praise and support for the man & his work. And as I was running through the possibilities in my mind, the second reaction started to really take hold: frustration with myself, a freshly-turned-30 year-old man giving something as trivial as social media more importance that it should receive.
The thing is, it really did matter to me that much. Over the years, my passion for music has waned considerably. Where my teenage self had so many musicians and bands that I felt so passionately about, BT was one of the handful of artists whose output still managed to illicit a strong and legitimate engagement from me. So much that instead of just streaming, I actually bought his music:

As much utter disdain as I have for Los Angeles, I once happily made the trip out to catch one of his shows and waited until 2:30 AM for his set to start:

And while I don’t have a hard calculated statistic, I would guess that 1 out of every 10 tweets would get engagement from him via either reply or being favorited (which as of recent is now a Twitter “like”).
IMG_1124-2 IMG_0525-2
 
(I used to screen cap all of them, but those were the only two I could readily find and seemed sufficient to illustrate my point here.)
Just the other week, I had a friend that I’d turned onto BT’s body of work tell me that he thought A Song Across Wires was pretty much the best album ever, that listening to it consistently made him feel like being out in the desert out with all of his friends and blissfully dancing the night away. He is just one of the many to whom I’ve preached the gospel of BT over the recent years.
So, yeah, it’s “just the Internet”, but those interactions were my own slice of the upside-to-social-media pie, the direct engagement between artist and fan that I passively had with one of the few music artists that I still really cared about. Going from occasional reply/favorite to flat out blocked without any identifiable cause has left me (annoyingly) feeling somewhat like a teenage girl/gay wondering why the guy hasn’t called/isn’t returning texts.
 

4v95ftt
Substitute “Friendship” with “Support” and this meme feels pretty on point.

Buuuuuutttt…all that said, my adult self recognizes that in the pre-mobile internet days I grew up in, this would have never even happened. Maybe it was an unintentional block, maybe he had a reason for it, who knows. Aside from the fact that I do admittedly feel less inclined to promote his work word-of-mouth, it doesn’t change my enjoyment or respect for the man and his work — A Song Across Wires is still easily sits towards the top of the “best albums I’ve ever heard” list.

Maleficent

Friday night, I rolled out to the movie theater with the roommate to go catch a 3-D IMAX (all the regular shows were sold out) of Maleficent. We’d both been waiting for the movie to drop in theaters since the trailer was first released. Myself out of interest to see what they’d do by giving Maleficent the Wicked treatment, and he for Angelina Jolie. I’m not a film enthusiast or student by any means, so my fully observations on the movie are purely informal reactionary opinion.
** SPOILERS AHEAD **
Angelina Jolie sells the movie, no question. By the end of the first 10 minutes of the movie when the initial world and plot are established the nature of the story and the events that will follow become immediately obvious, especially with the familiarity with the source material and the scenes shown in promotional clips — our exact reaction to the scenario was, “Ah, so it’s like that…”,
Movie trailers and internet memes leading up to the films release indicate that everyone’s clued in on the fact that Maleficent having wings and somehow losing them was going to be a point of exploration in the film. It’s actually the movie’s strongest moment. After being drugged to sleep by her childhood sweetheart, she comes to and finds that her beloved wings were amputated in her slumber. And Angie depicts that sudden realization of loss, pain, and violation with such unnervingly precise believability that it becomes so uncomfortable to watch that I actually forgot what movie I was watching and who it was made by. There are some really obvious correlations that established movie reviewers have been all to happy to call attention to. Jolie’s recent experience with her double mastectomy channeling into her performance, and the obvious analog for that plot device serves as. However, if you abstract the scene enough, the violation of trust and person being witnessed are not exclusive to female rape victims. I’m an adult male who’s never experienced a violent sexual abuse, but that didn’t stop the scene from strongly resonating with me. She drifts off to sleep in the trust and comfort of the world and people around here, only to wake and suddenly find her world turned upside down. Robbed of her strengths, betrayed by a close trusted one, left abandoned and drowning in despair with no one to fall back on but herself, in the process growing hardened, hateful, and vengeful. As demonstrated in the movie, these are traumas can happen without the experience of sexual assault.
Though that scene may be Angelina’s strongest moment in the film, her performance carries it all the way to completion. The visual effect eye candy is set to max, but most of the time I wasn’t paying attention to anything that wasn’t Angelina Jolie as Maleficent. The pacing and editing are very brisk and stilted — I’ve read this was the director’s first time in the chair, serving in the past mostly as a visual effects director, and it definitely shows. All the whimsy in the movie that would normally exude charm in a Disney production felt forced and fell flat. With all the liberty taken with magic and armies, everything that happens feels like it does because something has to, not because the story demands it to. In the final stride when it overlaps with the Sleeping Beauty narrative we’re all familiar with, the reworked story line and its underdeveloped nature lack a real impact due to a complete disregard for the idea of consequence. It’s Disney, so things still all manage to work out for the happy and better.
Still, I very much enjoyed watching the movie. Angelina Jolie’s performance never falters and makes up for all the movie’s other shortcomings. More than that, I like the direction that Disney’s storytelling is heading lately. They’re revisiting fairytale fantasy, but through an updated modern lens. True loves with happily ever afters and good versus evil are no longer the primary story drivers. I like it.

My Intro to Audiobooks: The Blood of Flowers

As I’ve been listening to podcasts to pass the time at the office, I keep hearing audiobooks recommended by the different tech podcasters that I’ve started listening to. Curious to learn more about them, I directed myself to Amazon’s Audible.com and signed up for a free trial. I was planning on using the free credit on a copy of Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is the Way. However, I figured that that would best be explored the first time in text, and I was in the mood for a good story to listen to. I browsed through Audible’s Essentials collection, and immediately settled on the #2 item on the list: The Blood of Flowers. I’ve been juggling around some ideas for this year’s NaNoWriMo, but haven’t had much luck with getting started with an actual draft. Since it’s been a good while since I’ve read a novel, trying out the audiobook experience with a work of fiction and taking a break from all the informational/instructional reading I normally consume was a two-fold benefit I couldn’t pass up. The premise of the book’s story seemed interesting enough, but it was the narration done by Shohreh Aghdashloo that sold me on it. I learned of her recently when she had a guest role on the TV show Bones, taken (like most others appear to be) by her elegant beauty and the hypnotic & pleasing raspiness to her voice.
I’m about 8 hours in, and it’s been turning out to be a great choice for a first audiobook. The only complaint I have is that, as a piece of historic fiction set in 17th-century Persia, there are sometimes where foreign words and names are used. Having only sounds to associate a subject to made learning all the characters a bit of a process. As a listener who doesn’t know any Persian, there are times when I’ve had to rewind the audio to get the necessary context to deduce whether a foreign word I’d heard was used for emphasis or an actual character or object. On the other hand, my utter lack of familiarity with Middle Eastern cultures hasn’t kept the ancient city of Isfahan from coming to life in my mind’s eye. Credit for that can be given to the few hours I clocked in exploring virtual 16th-century Constantinople in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations; using what I remember from that and a Google Image search for “Isfahan”, it’s really easy for me to step into the story-world of the book’s unnamed protagonist. It makes me wish I could step into some other universe where Middle East tensions don’t exist and I could explore Iran without having to be in a state of constant alarm and danger.
I can’t really weigh in too much on the overall story since I still haven’t finished it, but I will say that the setup in the prologue immediately seized my attention. The author, Anita Amirrezvani, has a respectable amount of talent as her craft. What I can confidently weigh in on is how enjoyable audiobooks can be (with the right voice casting, of course). With Audible being an Amazon service, the ability it has to sync positions across ebook and audiobook versions of titles has effectively pre-sold me on a Kindle Paperwhite and an ongoing Audible subscription. I held out over the many years on making digital book purchases to see how the iBooks/Nook/Kindle “war” would play out in regard to service/product development. Between Audible audiobooks, Whispersync (for Audible & Kindle), and Kindle Matchbook (heavily discounted/free ebook versions of paper books ordered from Amazon), I think I’ve finally determined who I’ll be giving my book money to.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Truthfully, I’m not one to watch many movies, which is a large reason as to why I’ve not drafted/posted any movie reviews on this blog. In the shift from adolescence to adulthood, I found myself growing frustrated with the hours of running times I’d invest into watching a movie, only to have the return fail to meet expectations. My best friend/roomie happens to love movies and has long since served as my unofficial recommendation engine. This past Friday, we had no evening plans and decided to go catch a movie now that the summer blockbuster season is starting to ramp up. We settled on catching a showing of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, expecting gratuitous action sequences & special effects with a plot that would at the very least be merely “acceptable”. What I got was a story so poorly developed that it kept putting me to sleep. Every time I woke up, I’d watch for a couple minutes to try to get caught up with the narrative, only to end up annoyed by the movie and losing interest to the point of passing out once again.
As I mentioned, my expectations were pretty properly aligned. I was going to watch a big-budget action flick that was focused on the modern-day take on a comic superhero created in the 1940’s as World War II propaganda. The character is, through name, appearance, and even personal backstory, the sensationalized embodiment of the “traditional” American spirit. So, I sat down thinking I was going to get 2+ hours worth of explosions, feats, superpower, and fight/action sequences with amazing special effects. What I got was a depressing representation of the current real-life political climate.

Captain America Movie Poster, Team America
What I expected — not what I got.

From the outset, good old Cap’n ’Murrica is lost. After banding together with all the other big powers on the good guy side and saving the world in The Avengers, he’s back to trying to get caught up with the modern world and find what he wants to do with his life. Watching handsome Mr. Super-capable going through an existential crisis didn’t really evoke much sympathy from me as a real normal person who’s been through the same thing on a much deeper level, but I digress. So while we begins to work on sorting out his personal affairs, he stays busy by putting his powers to good use for the government. A few segments in, the captain finds out that SHIELD has been developing a crazy military defense system, elevating the situation from unrestricted global monitoring of people to having an invisible gun pointed at everyone. And our hero, the representation of the classic American spirit protests, but he’s unable to do anything about it as a single person. It comes to light that SHIELD has been compromised and is corrupted, and that’s when I started falling asleep.
Over few clips I caught throughout the remainder of the movie, I basically watched a super cut of all the old plot devices I’d seen in the big action films of the 90’s: the best friend who thought to have died in the war still being alive, the former best friend being alive because he was saved and turned by the Russians, the “big reveal” where every secondary character turns out to be a supporting spy/soldier/hero. I realize that I can judge the movie too harshly on this front since Captain America has been around for a considerable amount of time, and being faithful to the comic requires retreading those established story arcs. Yet, at the same time, the whole point of these movies is to bring them up to date to contemporary story telling standards; with all the liberty Hollywood exercises in adapting stories from other mediums — think video game movies here — it felt like very little was done to reinvent the story and make it fresh and remarkable.
Ultimately, it was a disappointing waste of time and money.

Review: Dir en grey–“Dum Spiro Spero”

Dum Spiro Spero

Pretty Wicked Cover, Gotta Say…

So, this is the first review I’ve written since the old LiveJournal days. Bear with me, I don’t quite have a format nailed down.

ABOUT:

This is the eighth studio album by Japanese Rock (well, technically Japanese Metal as of around 2007) outfit Dir en grey. I’ve been a fan of these guys since 2000, back when they were a major name in the Japanese Visual Kei (read: Japanese version of Glam Rock) scene. For over a decade, I’ve seen this band reinvent both themselves and their musical style with a frequency that would make Madonna jealous. I managed to get ahold of a leaked copy (along with the rest of the internet) of their latest offering, officially dropping on 08/03/2011. I could go on, but this is a review, not a biography, so without further ado…

WHERE IT EXCELS:

If you like Metal and experimental/progressive music, this will definitely hit the sweet spot. The album sails through a drop-tuned turbulent sea on some interesting rhythm patterns and timing changes. Any given song will switch moods on you like a heroin junky going through withdrawals, said mood selection being limited to darker, darker, and darkerer (yeah, that’s grammatically incorrect, but with these guys there’s never an absolute “darkest”.) Long time fans have grown used to Kyo’s use of various screams in place of singing. Not here; a pleasantly surprising amount of the vocals are sung, and man, are they CLEAN. Fans of the screaming and growling won’t walk away disappointed – there’s plenty of them to go around, they just don’t take up the whole album.

WHERE IT FALLS SHORT:

Ever since I discovered this band, I’ve always felt their rhythm section to be their strongest asset. Not to insinuate that Kyo’s vocals and Kaoru & Die’s guitarwork is anything to scoff at (quite the contrary, actually), but Shinya’s drumming, Toshiya’s basslines, and Shinya’s drumming (see what I did there?) are easily the best parts of any of their songs. Sadly, their production team isn’t on the same page as I am. While not terrible, the mixing on the album could do more to really give the drums and bass the prominence they deserve. Focus, as is the unfortunate norm for a lot of rock genres, is on the guitars. They’re good, but come on, let’s acknowledge the other guys too.

TRACK BY TRACK: (In 3 sentences or less)

1) Kyoukotsu no Nari [狂骨の鳴り – “The Cry from Lunatic Bone”]: Less than two minutes of ambient noise. Sets the mood, sure, but I’m far more used to strong opening numbers. They used this approach on the previous album, but Uroboros’s “Sa Bir” succeeded far better at this thank Kyoukotsu does.
2) The Blossoming Beelzebub: Kind of a disappointment for a track with a length over seven minutes. It’s not bad, but there’s no cohesion or clear progression. The best part is the end of the track, which sports a flurry of drums and slap bass that nicely transitions into one of the best tracks on the album
3) Different Sense: This one beautiful beast of a song, blending elements from every phase of their musical career. The contrast between heavy verses and the melodic chorus dares you to try and not to like it. Oh, and it has a solo – remember when those used to happen regularly in Dir en grey’s songs?
4) Amon: Don’t know why this song got a special release with some photobook of sorts. The bass and drums do the most interesting stuff, but even then they’re forgettable. It’s kind of a bland dirge, to be honest.
5) “Yokusou Ni Dreambox” Aruiwa Seijuku No Rinen To Tsumetai Ame [「欲巣にDREAMBOX」あるいは成熟の理念と冷たい雨 – ” ‘Nesting Within the Dreambox’ Cold Rain and the Philosophy of the Mature”): Another dirge, but this one has some semblance of cohesion, along with a schizophrenic personality. The vocals are interesting, and are at their best during the chorus. I dig it.
6) Juuyoku [獣慾 – “Animal Lust”]: Drums go bang, bass goes boom, guitars go everywhere, and vocals go “rawr”. The title fits the song appropriately. You’ll fire this up when you want melodic noise, but you’ll be heard pressed to remember what the song sounds like in your head simply by looking at the title.
7) Shitataru Mourou [滴る朦朧 – “Trickling Ambiguity”]: Love the intro drums – very reminiscent of the Deftones’s “Digital Bath”. Love the way the guitars convey a sense of frantic despair. One of my favorite tracks on the album.
8) Lotus: There’s been some touchups, namely to the vocals and bass, from the previously released single version. Strong chorus, and a great overall mood. Loved it before, love it again.
9) Diabolos: Another let down due to the long length and lack of progression. It goes through a wide range of phases, but they’re not really pieced together in any particular way. It ain’t no “Vinushka”.
10) Akatsuki [暁 – Dawn]: This is a pretty crisp track. Popping bass, banging drums, and interesting guitars. Enjoyable, but alas, not exactly memorable.
11) Decayed Crow: Lots of screaming and persistent instrumentation. Sadly, at this point, it all starts to sound the same.
12) Hageshisa to, Kono Mune no Naka de Karamitsuita Shakunetsu no Yami [激しさと、この胸の中で絡み付いた灼熱の闇 – “And Violence, Tangled in the Burning Darkness of my Heart”]: Another previously released track, in retrospect set the foundation for the musical direction from this album. Like the other singles on the album, it’s had some upgrades done.
13) Vanitas [Emptiness]: THE BALLAD! As much as Dir en grey does melodic dissonance well, they’ve got a real talent for ballads. Though not their best, it’s different from their previous ones and still very good. A nice breath of fresh air for something that sounds distinctly different from the rest of the tracks on the album.
14) Ruten no Tou [流転の塔 – “Tower of Vicissitudes”]: Manages to pull off the feeling that things are coming to a close, but aside from that, I can’t really describe it without saying things I’ve already said about other songs on the album.
-BONUS TRACKS-
15) Rasetsukoku [羅刹国 – “Kingdom of Demons”]: Unlike previous remakes of old songs, this one is VERY faithful to the original version. Even the lyrics sound unchanged. A much appreciated metal rendition of a high energy rock track.
16) Amon (Symphonic Version): I like that it uses symphonic instruments to supplement the original rock instruments instead of replacing them entirely. I don’t like that the original version of this song was pretty lacking. I’m tempted to delete and replace the original “Amon” with this one.
Dum Spiro Spero Review

CONCLUSION:

If you’ve read interviews and reviews, you know that this is a highly experimental and unusual album for the band. True music lovers will appreciate it for those qualities, but won’t exactly be blown away by them. Lovers of the band will find a way to convince themselves this fresh offering from the band is the new best thing ever even though they’re won’t truly grasp the meaning behind the music. Dir en grey’s previous efforts have proven successful because they’re not afraid to get weird, unconventional, and experimental and fuse that with more accessible rock/metal songs. This album is 75 minutes of nothing but those very qualities and comes off as a professionally executed metal jam session between the five of them.
Bottom line? This is an album put together for themselves, not the fans, and they don’t give a fuck: it’s up to you whether to take it or leave it, and that’s both it’s strongest quality and greatest weakness.